Margaret K. McElderry, a book editor who employed shrewd intuition, critical acumen and a nurturing way with authors to help shepherd children’s literature from a prewar cottage industry to today’s billion-dollar business, died on Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 98.
Her death was confirmed by Emma Dryden, who for many years worked at Ms. McElderry’s side as an editor at Margaret McElderry Books, the first children’s imprint named for an editor.
Ms. McElderry came to be called the grande dame of children’s publishing, having transcended the typical anonymity of book editors by riding the crest of the postwar baby boom, helping to provide it with a new breed of engaging, nonpatronizing literature.
She recruited authors with a newer sensibility, ventured into controversial subjects, like the ravages of war, and led the way in publishing foreign works.
Her faith in her taste was the cornerstone of her success. She trusted her first impressions of a work, saying the good ones almost compel readers to ask a single question: “What happens next?” In a 1996 profile, Library Trends, a professional journal, praised her “empathetic curiosity.”
Ms. McElderry was alert to commercial possibilities. “It doesn’t hurt to have a book that sells awfully well every once in a while,” she said.
She did not exactly glide to success. As a senior at Mount Holyoke, she was told by a counselor that she had nothing to offer the publishing industry, so she went to library school. Even after she had climbed to the peak of her profession in 1971 — having edited winners of many Newbery and Caldecott Medals — her boss baffled her by saying, “The wave of the future had passed you by.” So she sifted through a dozen job offers and moved on to Atheneum, where she was given her own imprint.
Her success in both the artistic and commercial realm showed in the many prizes her authors won. In 1952, she became the first editor whose books won both the Newbery (for writing) and Caldecott (for illustration) in the same year. Ms. Estes’s “Ginger Pye” won the Newbery, and “Finders Keepers” by Will Lipkind, with illustrations by Nicolas Mordvinoff, won the Caldecott.
Other titles became a cherished part of bedtimes for more than a generation, including Mary Norton’s “Borrowers” and Ms. Mahy’s “Changeover,” both of which won Carnegie Medals.
Her success with imports included a volume of Michio Mado’s poetry translated into English by Empress Michiko of Japan. She was the first editor to publish a children’s book translated from German after World War II, Margot Benary-Isbert’s “Ark,” which told of America’s former enemies trying to stay alive in the rubble.
Many said Ms. McElderry showed courage in 1950 by publishing “The Two Reds” by Mr. Lipkind and Mr. Mordvinoff, the story of a boy with red hair and a red cat. Fearing the title would evoke Communists, many booksellers refused to sell the book; F. A. O. Schwarz in New York removed it from a window display.
“The publication of this book restores one’s faith in the experimental daring of American publishers,” Louise Seaman Bechtel wrote in The New York Herald Tribune. Ms. Bechtel was the first editor of juvenile books at an American publishing house, Macmillan.
Margaret Knox McElderry was born on June 10, 1912, in Pittsburgh, and attributed her early love of stories to the folk tales her mother told while gardening. After graduating from Mount Holyoke, she followed her counselor’s advice to avoid publishing and graduated from the Carnegie Library School in Pittsburgh.
She got a job in the children’s department of the New York Public Library at a salary of $1,320 a year. She dusted the office, answered the pedestal phone and helped read stories in city parks. After working for the Office of War Information in Europe during World War II, she took over the children’s department at Harcourt, Brace.
After what she called “the slap in the face” of being told she was not part of the future, Ms. McElderry went to Atheneum, which merged into Scribner, which merged into Macmillan, which merged into Simon & Schuster. She kept her personal imprint through the corporate changes.
Ms. McElderry became known for her elegant personal style, although she deigned to wear jeans for casual Fridays. She edited with a red pencil and dictated e-mail messages for someone else to type. She had no compunction about sending rejection letters, including several to Carl Sandburg. But she always tried to explain why, Ms. Dryden emphasized.
In the 1970s Ms. McElderry married Storer D. Lunt, a former president of W. W. Norton, the publisher. He died about a decade later. She left no immediate survivors. She continued to edit books into her 90s as editor at large of her imprint.
Ms. McElderry saw children’s books as the foundation of the publishing industry. “If you don’t catch them young,” she said, “you won’t have any adult readers.”